Denied release for now, Pistorius remains controversial
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) Messages on the Twitter page of South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, demand that ''convicted murderer'' Oscar Pistorius be denied early release from jail.
As well as being wrong - Pistorius was convicted of manslaughter, not murder in Reeva Steenkamp's killing - they show the public outcry and political pressure that South African authorities face in Pistorius' case, specifically whether the former star athlete should be released early from prison.
Pistorius' planned release was suddenly blocked by the Department of Justice, just two days before he was due to move to house arrest. Pistorius' discharge had been approved in the same way as thousands of other offenders, according to legal and prisoner rehabilitation experts.
''It smacks of political interference,'' said Marius du Toit, a defense lawyer and former state prosecutor. Du Toit thinks Pistorius is now being unfairly treated because of the high profile of his case, which has stoked emotional reactions.
''The problem is the public is seeing Oscar Pistorius being released,'' Du Toit said. ''They think he is getting away with murder.''
Pistorius' case fascinated live television audiences across the world during a seven-month murder trial last year and commanded more attention than the nearly 50 other killings that happen daily in South Africa.
The double-amputee Olympic runner's wealth and fame was an advantage, allowing him to employ a high-powered legal team. Pistorius was acquitted of murder and instead convicted of a lesser charge of culpable homicide, an unintentional but still unlawful killing comparable to manslaughter.
Even in prison over the last 10 months, Pistorius had privileges others didn't, according to reports. He was held away from the general population in a hospital wing at the high-security Kgosi Mampuru II prison in Pretoria. Authorities reportedly also gave him a new bed, built him a bath and provided him with a gym.
Now fame may be hurting Pistorius.
South Africans - from political activists to ordinary citizens - expressed outrage that Pistorius was eligible for release to house arrest after serving 10 months of his five-year sentence. Days after receiving a petition from a women's group calling Pistorius' release an ''insult,'' the Department of Justice intervened and blocked it.
After behaving well in jail, Pistorius was approved by a parole board in June for release this past Friday, when he would have served the required one-sixth of his sentence in jail. But in suspending Pistorius' release, the justice department said it had been approved too early and that he was only eligible for a hearing from Friday.
While the decision to review Pistorius' release was correct on a legal technicality, in practice many prisoners in South Africa are similarly approved in advance of the date they can be released, Du Toit and others said.
Keith Khoza, a senior spokesman for the ANC party, said the ''murderer'' tweets were the opinion of the ANC Women's League. Public opinion was a factor, Khoza said.
Pistorius' acquittal ''raised a public outcry that suggested that people that have money were able to escape justice,'' he said, but added ''we do not believe there is political interference.''
Still, despite being approved in the same way as many of the 15,000 offenders released under correctional supervision last year, Pistorius must wait in jail for a new hearing. Legal analysts say his lawyers have a strong case to challenge the justice department's ruling. His lawyers said they are considering their options.
Du Toit noted that Pistorius may not be able to afford to go to court again. After a long, expensive murder trial, and facing an appeal by prosecutors who will seek a murder conviction again at the Supreme Court in November, Pistorius is still famous, but no longer rich.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP